Our first thought when we see a vacant, run-down property is usually "what a dump." There are times, though, when it should be "I wonder what is inside."
Jason Geisendorfer went for a drive, last spring, around the northeast Missouri community of Lewistown.
He made his way to a little-used street, near his home, when he noticed an abandoned property, complete with a rundown house, a shed and a deteriorating school bus.
Geisendorfer decided then and there to buy the site and clean it up to sell the scrap, but he did not know from whom he could buy it.
"It wasn’t until two weeks later, I was driving back into town and I happened to glance over at the piece of property and I saw a silver car pull into the driveway.”
Geisendorfer hurried to the property and found the owner, who offered to sell it to him for $600.
$600 may not sound like a lot for land, but he says it is when you have been laid up after being injured while working construction.
"I have been fighting workers comp denying my back surgery going on over two years," says Geisendorfer. "I have been living off my savings and trying to survive.”
Due to his injury, Geisendorfer recruited his teenage daughters to clean up the site, telling them to look specifically for antiques.
He says they found a few, but they also found dozens of unexpected items.
"There were actually so many paintings in the house that I was going to burn them to get rid of them.”
Geisendorfer says his family eventually removed more than 350 paintings and drawings.
"I would come home and my wife would say, ‘what do you have?’ and I would say, ‘I found five more paintings and they were behind the refrigerator.”
The works were by Virginia Terpening (1917-2007), whose daughter sold Geisendorfer the property.
Terpening studied fine arts at Washington University in Saint Louis.
Her works, which have won a bunch of awards, have been displated throughout the country.
The quality of the work convinced Geisendorfer to not burn them, but rather to give them away.
His first attempt failed, though, when a local art center turned him away.
He kept reaching out to local artists, eventually leading to a phone call from Debbie Myers, who teaches art at Culver-Stockton College.
"I called and said, ‘Jason, is this you?’ He said, ‘yes,’ and he said ‘I was going to get ahold of you’ and I said, ‘what is going on.’"
Myers knew Geisendorfer because she was his teacher at Highland High School. She eventually met with her former student to see what he found.
“The fact that she created so much work, and I knew that she had also sold a number of pieces." says Myers. "And to still have all of this artwork, I was amazed.”
There were abstracts, mixed-mediums, still-lifes, landscapes and self-portraits.
Myers says she told Geisendorfer to be careful because of the nature of his discovery.
He says as word spread, he received multiple, significant financial offers, which he declined.
Geisendorfer says he eventually was approached by a man, out of the blue, who wanted to auction off the artwork, thus letting the public set the price.
“He guaranteed me money if I went with his auction and that is what I did," says Geisendorfer. "He was confident they were worth money that he was willing to guarantee me money.”
Geisendorfer says the auction brought in about $56,000, though the amount he received is unknown.
The Hinge in St. Louis bought more than 50 of the works.
Co-Founder Eileen G’Sell says the gallery could not pass up this opportunity.
"I think there is a kind of whimsicality and sense of humor to her work that is a little subtle," says G'Sell. "Her style, really for the mid-century for me at least, really speaks to a unique perspective as a mid-century female paintder painting in small-town Missouri.”
Fellow Co-Founder Bryan Laughlin, Jr. feels many in St. Louis’ art community dismissed Terpening’s works.
“I realized that the work was definitely going to be more significant than everyone was passing it off as just a found artwork.
The Hinge is showing off its acquisitions and the works of other owners in the exhibit, "Yes Virginia... There is... " which opens at 7 PM on Saturday, January 25.
Not every painting was sold to galleries like the Hinge during the auction as Geisendorfer kept a few paintings of local landscapes and landmarks.
He says as he looks back on last year, he might have held onto the paintings longer, but in the end, he says he was in the right place at the right time during a difficult point in his life.
“It was only a block and a half away from my house and it has been grown up with weeds and everybody in town has seen it and I am the lucky one that stopped and asked if it was for sale.”
Geisendorfer's find begs the question: what are you going to think the next time you see that run-down property along the side of the road.